Highlights and insights from my personal adventures at the epicenter of edtech.

UNPACKING EDTECH | by Mark Gura

I’m back from this year’s FETC in Orlando, just a few miles from Florida’s Space Coast.

While my colleagues back in the trenches in many parts of the country were shivering and hunkering down to weather a soul chilling Polar Vortex, I was basking in the warmth of some of the very best of my chosen field at the annual Future of Education Technology in sunny Florida.

The conference website proudly sang “For nearly 40 years, the Future of Education Technology Conference has gathered the most dynamic and creative education professionals from around the world for an intensive, highly collaborative exploration of new technologies, best practices and pressing issues…“

And for two inspiring days, I danced to that tune.

Sitting down now, I’m pumped and ready to share the highlights of my experience.

Education Reimagined 

In the VIP Lounge a few minutes before he delivered the opening keynote, I found myself chatting with Salman Khan, now famous founder of the Khan Academy. I put him on the spot asking him to give some advice to of my students; I teach graduate, Educational Technology Leadership courses for a few universities.

To his credit, his diligently wrapped his brain around the question, offering that they really need to find people in the field doing good work and ask them lots of good questions. And I’ll hold up my end of the bargain and pass that along to young teachers who, as they become more and more tech savvy, very often find themselves, often unexpectedly, guiding and leading their own colleagues who need authentic, relevant information and advice. In fact, that kind of sums up much of the activity and worth I observed throughout the conference.

Khan’s, keynote was “The One World School House – Education Reimagined” — which is also the title of his 2013 book. He retold the origin story of the Khan Academy, whose goal is to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. By now we are familiar with this story of what started out for him with tutoring, over the phone, a cousin who was struggling with math.

Soon, he was struggling to keep up with tutoring request from others and the experience ended up being a global success when another relative suggested he upload his lessons to YouTube. There they were eventually found by Bill Gates who had been looking for such content and shared his discovery of it at a televised conference. The rest is an important bright spot in the recent history of Education.

In fact, millions of students and teachers around the globe currently use the Khan Academy’s free videos and software, which now encompass a large body of subjects. In short, Khan’s ‘Can Do!’ spirit and message of rising to the challenge of today’s educational needs by reaching for the right technology was an appropriate, key note from which to launch the conference. I witnessed many energized young educators over the next two days following Khan’s footsteps.

The Right Stuff

Flying closer to the surface of the real world, district level administrators often wrestle with a thorny, Gordian Knot of organizational, political, and human resource challenges in order to ensure that their district’s technology effectively and safely serves their district well. Crucial aspects of this reality were explored in a very well-conceived and delivered workshop I attended, “Help Wanted: Qualities Transformational Superintendents Look For in IT Leaders.”

In this session, veterans responsible for district technology programs (including former Superintendent, Robert Avossa and CIO, Deepak Agarwal of the Palm Beach County School District; Serena Sacks, CIO of Fulton County Schools (Ga.); and moderator, Bruce Umpstead, Director of State Engagement at IMS Global) offered hard-won firsthand advice.

As I recall, for me, this session took itself to that ‘next level’ I was looking for when Ms. Sachs presented the first of her three touchstone recommendations; that those responsible for technology on a district level keep themselves and those they work with focused on its overarching purpose, to support teaching and learning. I find it very heartening, that CIOs not only recognize, but celebrate this.This is the right stuff; Bravo!

Language Express

It’s wonderful to observe at conferences like this how the body of digital instructional content available to teachers has gotten richer and more complex, offering a greater and greater variety of types and styles of content for different student needs. Truly, it’s amazing to think back over the past two decades to reflect on how the emergence of digital content resources has, by dint of their richness and value, precipitated changes, good ones, in practice along with improved student engagement and learning.

I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to sit down with Marc Zimmerman, head of content provider Language Express, to discuss the suite of 3 digital content series they offer. Marc shared with me that the origin of the materials is rooted in his own life, the kind of story that resonates strongly for me. He is the father of autistic twins and as a father, dedicated to providing the very best experience for them; he sought out the materials he ultimately had to produce on his own as they simply weren’t available elsewhere. These resources provide high quality. engaging “webisodes” that teach foundational skills for social and emotional learning for preschoolers to highschoolers. The research-based animated interactive lessons encourage users to practice real-life social interactions. I highly recommend that readers visit the links below to get a taste of the care and artful attention that clearly went into their design and production.

Language Express now offers the following 3 series that strike me as absolutely perfect for students challenged with the social and emotional aspects of coping and thriving. There’s
The Social Express , which is focused on social emotional learning and helping kids learn how to interact with others appropriately; Cool School, Focused on helping educators manage bullying for both the victim and the bully; and there’s great PD for teachers for this important tool to use with students to prevent bullying and deal with it when it does occur.

The third piece, Teen Career Path, was designed to help special needs kids find a realistic career path and learn skills needed for the workplace. Again in Orlando, close to the Space Coast, I found The Right Stuff.

MERGE

From the MERGE website https://mergevr.com/kids

Showing up on Expo floors like the one I walked for a few heady hours at FETC this year, VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality) products have proliferated and evolved so that there are some truly startling and practical classroom and budget friendly items currently available. At the MERGE booth I experienced resources intended to supercharge learning in the classroom by equipping students with an exciting toolbox of AR objects, VR experiences, and immersive activities. And the time I spent there convinced me of the potential of their offerings to do just that.

But beyond what seemed, truly like perceptual magic generated by the things placed in my hands by MERGE’s representative, I was very much taken with what, to coin a phrase, seems to be the way MERGE has “school friendly-fied” this variety of resource. I can see teachers and students enjoying and benefitting from these resources easily. But, I’m struggling to come up here with text, a hundreds of years old technology, to adequately describe what is an educational technology very much of the moment. And better than offer more words, let me offer MERGE’s URL https://mergevr.com

Planet Protector Academy

I have to confess, I’m a sucker for this type of thing. Having been a kid myself once (you might not know that from the photo) and having been a middle school teacher for two decades, I know that some approaches simply grab kids by their heartstrings and stir them up in the best possible way. Planet Protector Academy, a social activism oriented animated series, engages students to become part of a team of super heroes who take responsible, down to Earth action to improve the environment. Yes, there’s Environmental Science, English Language skills, and Social Studies themes to learn, too.

Thus, it’s all there; the opportunity to be one of the good guys who fights the good fight, positive group identity, thoughtful reflection on real world problems and solutions for them, and more. Chatting with the caped representatives from this provider was a bright conference highlight for me because Planet Protector Academy seems to me to speak so strongly to the possibility of school supporting the high spirited joy of being a kid. It fosters authentic learning to navigate and prosper in the world kids discover while growing up, even considering the sorry state it’s in currently. May the force of enlightened educators’ interest be with Planet Protector Academy!

Robotics, Robotics, Robotics!

Since my days as Director of STEM Education for the New York City school system, years ago, I have closely followed Student Robotics. I find it heartening that finally this variety of resource and practice is finding its way into virtually every school. Even more importantly, in many cases it’s beginning to migrate from the hinterlands of extracurricular and afterschool programs to being integrated directly into core subjects in the regularly scheduled daytime instructional program. Going hand and hand with this much improved appreciation for Student Robotics is an ever broadening range of materials from a longer and longer list of developers and providers; I encountered a couple dozen at the conference.

This rapidly accelerating expansion of robotics materials types and their applications throughout instructional programs, no doubt, is leaving many educators who now want to make this exemplary best practice part of what they offer their students, not knowing where to even start. This growing need for information and insight will be addressed in an upcoming free special ‘State of Student Robotics: An Educators Guide’ that I am developing for EdTech Digest. The express purpose of this will be to make understanding the instructional and classroom management aspects of this area, as well as purchasing decisions, easier. Watch for the release of this item this spring.

Let me share a couple of outstanding student robotics items that caught my attention at the conference.

First, is a new item from LEGO Education. While there were a few other early entrants into the area of student robotics resource and practice way back in the day, items like the Bee Bot, something around for years and years and which was also being shown on the Expo floor, LEGO Education’s now famous Mind Storms robotics kits, in my opinion, truly broke this space open and introduced robotics to schools. I should know, I purchased and placed in classrooms a good amount of the LEGO materials, personally, back in the 1990s. It was an interesting step forward for them when, a few years back, they introduced their WeDo materials, bringing the age appropriateness down from upper elementary through middle and high school to early elementary.

Now, however, they are introducing Coding Express which is intended for very young children, say, in pre-K and Kindergarten. Essentially, with Coding Express, kids program (YES, program) a kid sized train to move as they direct it to by selecting color coded pieces that the kit scans and gives the train directions as it travels

Truth be told, there were many varieties of robotics and coding resources for very young children to be seen at the conference. What caught my attention at LEGO Education, though, is that this venerable provider has now established a full continuum of materials for the various ages. Under the same brand, there is now a range of materials to take kids from pre-K on up through and beyond middle school and with this consistency, I think; will come both important organizational and instructional advantages.

Demoed at BirdBrain Robotics booth. Click on photo to launch video.

I stopped by the booth of Birdbrain Technologies and, as always, I was impressed with how their approach to robotics blends with required curriculum in ways that teachers can understand and embrace easily.

I also very much appreciate the handmade look of the robotic creations students make with Birdbrain resources. This samples I played with at the booth very much illustrated how students can use robotics to deepen understanding of the work of writers and how they can participate directly in the genre they are studying while learning important STEM skills at the same time. A Birdbrain representative and a classroom teacher user of the materials showed me some highly inventive and artistic robotics creations, some of which I took to be student done kinetic illustrations of poems: quite a “Wow!” 

Hello, Yanshee! (and Meebot, too)

Outside Apple’s workshop area, where they offered in-depth experiences for the many educators who lined up down that hallway to be admitted, I picked up their menu of offerings whose siren song was kicked off with the line “Join us as we explore new ways to raise the bar for what’s possible in teaching and learning…” (Sometimes I positively love the spirit that Apple imbues Education with!)

A little further down the hall was Apple’s intriguing “playground” titled Theater of Dreams Inspirational Stories. In both their teacher workshop “Teach Serious Coding in a Seriously Fun Way” and front and center on a table in the playground was UBTECH’s Meebot.

UBTECH’s Meebot.

I sat down with Jeff Piontek, UBTECH’s Head of Education, North America and tried to absorb the head spinning information about the rapid growth of popularity of their materials as well as some of the amazing things being done with them. All this while he gave a quick demo of the amazing Yanshee robot (see video below)

UBTECH Education is a welcome, relative newcomer to the American school scene. Importantly, though, it has teamed up with Pitsco Education, a long trusted and relied on provider in this area. Pitsco will be UBTECH Education’s national distribution partner, working closely with districts to launch UBTECH’s UKITs and Yanshee robots in K–12 classrooms. I think we’ll be seeing these robots in a great many more classrooms soon as a result.

Yanshee Rocks! Click on photo for video.

UBTECH recently announced the launch of its UKIT – a new robotics kit featuring curriculum that is fully aligned with Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Its curriculum, developed by experts in their respective fields of science, mathematics and literacy, is designed to teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) concepts and skills.

The UKIT curriculum also ties STEM literacy into each unit through a literacy prompt that exemplifies the connection between the lesson content and real-world application. During classes, students collaborate or work independently within their “Big Idea Book” to make hypotheses, gather data, and formulate questions about how the hands-on activity with the robot applies in a real-world scenario or as scientific phenomenon.

“The Big Idea Book, in combination with UKIT, serve as a conduit for children to focus on the essence of engineering – their imagination,” Jeff explained. “When teachers use our kits, they teach that the study of robotics is truly interdisciplinary, and that robotics is in all types of mechanics and electronics today. They teach that robotics can use artificial intelligence and that robots can sense and perceive the world around them. Most importantly, teachers convey the possibilities of robotics and that the field will be a part of the future.”

The future, yes, we got a good glimpse of it at FETC. I returned home very pleased to have attended this year’s installment and inspired to know that a conference that focuses on the future of education will continue grow and serve the education community. It’s needed and hey, I understand that next year it will be in Miami—cool!

Mark Gura is a contributing editor for EdTech Digest and author of Getting Started With LEGO Robotics (ISTE). He is a co-author of State of EdTech: The Minds Behind What’s Now and What’s Next. He taught at New York City public schools in East Harlem for two decades. He spent five years as a curriculum developer for the central office and was eventually tapped to be the New York City Department of Education’s director of the Office of Instructional Technology, assisting over 1,700 schools serving 1.1 million students in America’s largest school system.